Because nobody is perfect, humans are prone to innumerable bad decisions, or to being manipulated by others into doing things they wouldn’t normally do. The history of film is full of both real and fictional cautionary tales, showing how quickly someone can go from leading a relatively normal life to having their world completely turned upside down.
In Palm Trees and Power Lines, Lea (Lily McInerny) is a 17-year-old girl on summer break in Southern California, spending her days lying out in the sun and hanging out with her best friend, Amber (Quinn Frankel), among others. Lea and her mom, Sandra (Gretchen Mol), are constantly at odds, with Sandra distracted by her work and her own dating life.
Lea seems disconnected from everyone and everything else around her, so when she meets Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a man twice her age, he offers a respite from the monotony/drudgery of her daily life. Slowly but surely she falls for him, even though part of her knows the situation feels off. By the time she discovers the truth about Tom’s life, it may be too late to go back.
Written and directed by Jamie Deck, with help from co-writer Audrey Findlay, the film is profoundly difficult to watch, as viewers are witness to a slow-motion train wreck that they are powerless to stop. Deck structures the film so that Lea is almost the perfect victim, someone who’s alienated from those close to her and more than willing to accept someone who promises a type of escape.
Likewise, Tom – aside from the inherently creepy idea of a 34-year-old man pursuing a 17-year-old girl – doesn’t come across as a monster. He’s never overtly pushy; instead, he subtly influences her with kindness and attention. Even during the evilest (aka most devastatingly effective) moment of the film, he never raises his voice or threatens Lea in any way, which somehow makes the aftermath even worse.
In that and a subsequent horrific scene, Deck is unflinching with the camera, placing it in a single location and rarely cutting, even when things get supremely uncomfortable. The situation in which Lea finds herself is not one that is often confronted in movies, and by wallowing in the misery of it, it’s as if Deck is refusing to let viewers off the hook by letting them look away.
McInerny, who is 24 in real life, has a look and demeanor that aids in the verisimilitude of the film immensely. Her role is complex, but the novice actor handles everything that’s asked of her extremely well. Tucker is also well-suited for his part, coming off as non-threatening but still persuasive. His “nice guy” look hides the type of person his character truly is.
Palm Trees and Power Lines is not an easy film to watch, and it often goes in directions that viewers may not want to believe. But its message, even if it’s tough to swallow, is a powerful one that deserves attention, and it’s delivered strongly by all involved.
Palm Trees and Power Lines opens on March 3 in select theaters. It will also be available on VOD for home viewing.